The Princess As Metaphor vs. The Princess As Character

Before we discussed Braid in class, I had actually read about the atom bomb interpretation, and I admit, I was resistant to that interpretation at first. By now, I’ve seen enough evidence (the Oppenheimer quote, the Princess exploding in the alternate ending, etc.) to begrudgingly accept that the bomb metaphor is a significant component of the game, but the metaphor still pushes my feminist buttons–not because of what the Princess represents, but rather because the Princess represents an object or idea at all.

I am admittedly drawing upon my limited personal experiences to make this observation, but this particular instance seems distinct from instances in which characters serve as analogs for historical or mythological figures (e.g. Aslan as Jesus), and from large-scale allegories for large events (e.g. District 9 and South African apartheid). In the case of Braid, a person is a metaphor for a thing. The only comparable example in my memory is The Great Gatsby. While I have not personally studied the novel in any formal context or even read the book on my own, I have heard from others that the character of Daisy represents the American Dream. Daisy is also similar to the Princess in that she is a woman. So, while I can point to multiple examples of female characters being used as metaphors for objects or abstract concepts, I have yet to remember a male character being used for similar purposes.

The reason this trend (if it is indeed a trend) is so troublesome to me is that it reinforces the position of women as objects that exist for the development of men. As the protagonist of the story and the counterpart to the scientist, Tim is given an engaging existential dilemma surrounding the destructive consequences of his actions, but the Princess is afforded no significant perspective on the situation that would enrich her as a character, apart from, “Help! The bad man is after me! Save me, big muscular hero!” (This particular aspect of the game carries its own sexist implications, but they seemed more obvious and less interesting than the metaphor component.) In order to effectively communicate the atomic bomb metaphor, the Princess’s place in the story must be kept simple and ambiguous enough that she can functionally be replaced with an object.

Again, I admit that I haven’t examined enough literature to identify this aspect of the game as representative of a larger trend, but I would be interested to know if any of you have encountered either additional examples of the trend or counterexamples (i.e. male characters that serve as metaphors for objects/ideas).

4 thoughts on “The Princess As Metaphor vs. The Princess As Character

  1. I can think of at least one more example–I don’t know if anyone here took Japanese Civ, but we read a novel called Naomi there, and the titular character (and the narrator’s relationship with her) seemed to me to be a blatant metaphor for Japanese modernization. Which brings up something else interesting: all these women seem to be sort of . . . stand-ins for their authors to explore a cultural event or zeitgeist.

    It’s obvious why one might use a female character for this kind of symbolic layering: from a heterosexual male standpoint, a woman is an object of desire, a potential romantic partner–with all the meaning and potential fulfillment and potential peril implied there–all of which is potent material for a writer, especially one trying to construct a metaphor. But at the same time, I don’t think I really have to explain how problematic it is to have all these narratives where a woman is constantly an object to a male subject.

    Come to think of it–and this is the inverse of your observation, I guess–I’ve played a number of Passage-type arty games, where gameplay is more an extended message about the nature of life and experience, and I’m hard-pressed to think of ones where your avatar isn’t coded male. This is true of video games in general, of course! But it seems to me to be notable and prominent in this genre especially–and of course, in literary fiction (compared to other genres of fiction) as well. Just something to think about.

    • Oh, another note–I don’t think the atom bomb metaphor and a potential feminist message are mutually exclusive? (Although you could certainly argue that the former undermines the latter.) In fact, I prefer reading the game in context of gender dynamics, for all the reasons you’ve outlined here.

      • yeah, I’m with you Jackson not being totally compelled by the bomb stuff (though I think there are some really interesting comparisons to be made between Braid and Lord of the Rings as responses to technologies of warfare, etc.)

        But I don’t think the princess-as-bomb is necessarily problematic, even if it is objectification. I think that the problem that you are identifying is when a full character (or a living human) is essentialized via metaphor. But the princess isn’t a character to begin with, right? I don’t think she can be. If the game is moving from Mario (or any other princess/rescue story) she’s already an object of exchange.

        It’s interesting to think about what would happen the princess in Braid was a full-fledged character, but I think that it would fundamentally alter the provocative ways that it is (maybe) teaching us about gender. The game is hyper-focused on Tim (his views, his memories, etc) in a way that ultimately allows us to see the problems inherent in his modes of interacting with the world. And I think the princess-as-object is part of that.

  2. I know what you mean and worried about the same thing. The problem with women in video games is as much their representation as it is the tropes that surround the already-existing characters– it’s almost a catch-22; at the very least, it’s difficult to criticize both at once. For me, it brings to mind a lot of defenses you hear about parody, as in, “I don’t really think women belong in the kitchen, that’s why the joke is funny.” BUT, if you’re adding to a prevalent conversation that believes women belong in the kitchen, aren’t you just reinforcing that notion and not saying anything new? Granted, I give Braid a lot more credit than that, and I think it does great things (I would agree with Jennifer that the bomb metaphor and the feminist message aren’t mutually exclusive), but I think it’s important to note these seeming contradictions either way.

    Has anyone shared this yet? Definitely worth checking out.

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